What time do you call this then?
How do you spend five years making an album? If you're Elastica, you take smack, argue and break up with that bloke from Blur...
The late afternoon sun shines through the trees of the real London Fields, the South Hackney patch of green that gave Martin Amis the name for his 1989 novel that warned of both impending apocalypse and The Death Of Love. Back in the 1994-5 height of Britpop, Justine Frischmann and her boyfriend Damon Albarn would obsessively press copies of this book on their friends. But that was all a very long time ago.
In a neighbouring garden, Elastica drummer Justin Welch - having turned up early on his beloved Lambretta - waits for the arrival of the rest of his band, the band he formed in 1992 with recent Suede refugee Justine on guitar and her new boyfriend Damon standing in on bass. His nose is peeling from two weeks recently spent in Costa Rica. "It's great," he confirms of the group's current mindset. "Everyone's well!"
Guitarist Paul Jones, smiley tousle-haired flatmate of Louis from The Warm Jets, appears next. Struggling to remember how long he's been a fully paid-up band member, he admits: "Time flies with this band."
Elastica's female contingent arrive together in a taxi from Justine's Ladbroke Grove home. Bassist Annie Holland, newly returned after years spent exiled in Brighton doing jobs like "making chalkboards for pubs", is here under mild duress. She still hates doing promotion.
In contrast, keyboard player Mew - on board since April - is loving every part of the job. A former model [Who for? I'm not telling you! I was always too short and fat for it, anyway"], she says she jumps up and down when playing live because, paradoxically, she feels invisible when she's on stage. Today's Elastica is, she reckons, "a party band, but not in a bad way".
And Justine? Though Annie reckons she "feels the pressure more than she shows", Justine looks the very image of health and contentment in saggy jeans, Adidas jacket and grey sweat-top.
So, minus keyboard-player/programmer Dave Bush who's on holiday in Bali, the new Elastica band prepare for their photo shoot by sucking at cigarettes and swigging from bottles of beer.
After much muttering and mutual giggling, they're eventually persuaded to congregate arount the pool table in the photographer's back shed. 'The Man Who' is playing discreetly. At the bridge of 'Driftwood', the band all sing the near-identical chorus of Blur's 'The Universal': "Yes it really, really, really could happen..."
"One of your favorites, that one, isn't it, Just?" teases Paul.
"Oh, yeah," she mutters, dismissively.
It really all was a very, very long time ago.
It's February 2000, almost five years since their eponymous debut album went straight in at Number One and at last Elastica have another album coming out: the gritty mosaic of 'The Menace', a record that reveals more depth and humanity with each listen but which, it can be said with some certainty, won't enter the charts at Number One.
At this point, it's probably woth asking why anyone should actually still care about this bunch of Britpop castaways. They did, after all, leave everyone spectacularly in the lurch amid rumours of heroin use, relationship breakdowns and friendship turned to hatred. Another year came around, another promise of their imminent reappearance would inevitably be broken. People spoke of the band living the kind of bizzare demi-monde Notting Hill existence reminiscent of the faded star scene depicted in Nick Roeg's Performance. Except this time the part of Mick Jagger was taken by Loz from Kingmaker.
And then, when Elastica finally broke cover last year, it was with the spectacularly thread bare '6 Track EP', a work that sounded like it hadn't taken the best part of a lunch-break, let alone half a decade. If this band couldn't be bothered anymore, then really, ehy should we?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that, at their peak, everything about Elastica - the clothes, the music, the image, the slouch - came on like a perfectly formed pop-art statement. This gang of prowling boy-girls [and token boy] threw out guillotine-sharp punk-pop songs about brewer's droop ['Stutter'], lubricants ['Vaseline'] and blowjob-dispensing groupies ['Line-Up']. Songs that felt like missives from a world that was somehow cooler than your own.
They released one of the finest debut albums of the decade in the guise of a tatty circa-'78 bootleg. They elevated the art of plagiarism to heights where the groups concerned [Wire, The Stranglers] couldn't avoid suing. Even those first names [Justine/Justin] seemed synchronised according to some unknown masterplan.
Sure, in reality, Donna was dating Rick Witter from Shed Seven and the band's social circle included the membersof Menswear but, hey, those were excitable times.
The band's peak, the summer of '95, coincided exactly with that of Britpop. Of course, every group riding that wave suffered some form of comedown, but Elastica were left asking where it all went wrong long before anyone else. At the height of their fame, Donna was asked which drugs she had taken, and replied, "all of them". This answersummed up the general impression that if it was there for the taking, Elastica would take it. The logical extension of Donna's statement was that she must have tried heroin and, as that most unmentionable of drugs replaced cocaine as the scensters' drug of choice, Elastica became indelibly associated with its use.
At this point, the high cool becomes infected with high farce as the sussed air that infused their every step was being replaced by pitiful, flailing rancour. An album was practically completed in 1996 but shelved because it didn't feel right. Drug use incapacitated band members in the studio to the point where they couldn't play their instruments. The two chief songwriters - Justine and guitarist Donna Matthews - took to recording the second album on alternate days because they couldn't stand the sight of each other.
Last year, just as they were getting back on a secure footing with a new line-up, they ran out of money. Then last September they finally laid down practically the whole of their follow-up album. In a couple of weeks. For that spontaneous feel. For the absurdly modest sum of £10,000.
"It's all a bit Spinal Tap, isn't it!" admits Justine.
1995 should have been a good year for Elastica. In March, their debut album was released after two years of carefully limited exposure. Not only did it go straight in at Number One, it also became the fastest-selling debut album in Britain ever, beating the record set seven months earlier by 'Definitely Maybe'. They hadn't seen much money so far, but it was pretty obvious they soon would. Touring around in transit vans playing small, albeit packed venues, this was assuredly their time.
"You get the key to London," reflects Justin. "You can get into anywhere and do anything you want. So we did, really."
But the album's formation had been intense. Producer Marc Waterman didn't work seven months afterwards. "He was the person who cared about it as much as I did," Justine claims. "And it just totally did his head in."
He wasn't the only one finding the intensity hard to take.
"We'd play a gig, which was great, then we'd go out full of adrenaline," remembers Annie. "We'd get out of it, get on the bus, probably have an hour's kip if we were lucky - I don't remember going to bed a lot in the bus. Then we'd get up and it's photos and interviews all bloody day. All that stuff did everybody's heads in."
By the summer, the original gang was already starting to splinter. Annie found that pop stardom went against the grain of her punk rock roots. She was convinced they weren't performing well ["It was like we were all playing in different rooms"] and, worse still, her bass playing was causing her pains in her left arm. "I came off stage in tears wanting to chop the thing off," she says.
She eventually left in August halfway through their stint on the Lollapalooza tour to be temporarily replaced by Abby Travis. Few, apart from her parents and a few close friends, understood but, she says, "it was a big relief. I think I'd have been in the loony bin if I'd carried on, I really do."
People said you'd gone into rehab.
"When Annie went," reckons Justin, "that's when it all started to fall apart."
According to Justine, Donne - whose compulsive behaviour until then was largely restricted to shopping - took to stardom with an almost desperate enthusiasm, developing an eating disorder and an unhealthy fascination with hanging out with the stars. "She had a massive collage above her bed of her with every famous person she'd met," Justine recalls. "She was seven-and-a-half stone, hanging out with Kate Moss. It was a real head-fuck."
Justine herself was becoming obsessed by competing with the big boys, constantly persuading the others to continue working with a zeal that led Donna to claim she wasn't a human being [so, Justine believes, inspiring the new album's 1996 Donna relic 'Human'].
"I just turned into some kind of robot," she agrees. "Just going. 'We've got to carry on, just another tour, keep on keepin' on.'"
But she was worried. The debut album was her personal vision, so fully-formed that a sequel seemed somehow unimaginable. Sniffier critics would claim it showed promise, but Justine felt there was no way she could improve on it.
What's more, Justine and Damon had joined that lineage stretching from Burton and Taylor through to Zoe and Norm as the celebritycouple of the day, both tabloid fodder and dinner-party conversation piece. Rumours suggested that Damon [keyboard player on 'Elastica' billed anagramatically as 'Dan Abnormal'] played a far more central role in writing the album than anyone was letting on.
"All the shit about how I'd slept my way to the top!" Justine spittingly refutes the accusations. "It made out I was, you know, this Patsy Kensit type."
Returning from a US tour in 1995, Justine came back to the Notting Hill house she'd just moved into with Damon. He hadn't managed to buy any furniture or any lightbulbs. One of her cats had started acting strangely because of her continued absence. She realised she'd lost touch with her friends and family to the point where even sustaining conversation was difficult. "I was definitely the most miserable I've ever been in my whole life," she says. Sitting alone in this large, empty house, she realised she felt utterly numb.
'Darkness' was Damon Albarn's term for the atmosphere that came to surround Elastica. While Blur reached Number One in January 1997 with 'Beetlebum', a song he later revealed to be about heroin, his girlfriend's band became umbilically associated with rumours about the same drug. Snapped on the steps of the Met Bar, Donna's features were increasingly gaunt, her skin ever more pallid. Justine was less visible, but no less gossip-worthy.
At the year's end, she appeared on a documentary about Marianne Faithfull, commenting on the debilitating effects of having a hyperactive rock star boyfriend. "When your boyfriend gets up at eight o'clock to go jogging, it just makes you want to stay in bed and take load of heroin," she claimed.
You admitted taking heroin on Christmas telly!
Did drugs get the better of Elastica?
So are you talking about heroin, then?
Do you find it odd how heroin's become this singularly emotive subject?
So how bad did things get?
So there was some truth in the idea of Elastica being slumped in the studio, doing nothing.
Did you make a conscious decision to stop?
So has your attitude changed?
Did you ever think that you had a drug problem?
It must have been strange being in the most talked-about drug clique in Britain.
1996 wasn't a good year for Elastica. In March, they started demoing material for the new album. Former Fall member Dave Bush was drafted in as programmer/keyboardist to help drive forward the much-vaunted new direction. They were now into New Order and, accordingly, the future of Elastica was going to be moodily electronic. This posed problems for Justine, though, who found she could only really write fast, punky songs.
Musically and socially, former best mates Justine and Donna were by now diverging wildly. Justine started believing that Donna was writing better songs than she could. Donna was claiming she didn't think the first album was up to much.
"I'd go in with a song," Justine recalls, "and Donna would be, 'I don't like that song.' You can try it until you're blue in the face, but if there's one person who doesn't want it to work, it won't."
August's Radio One Evening Session broadcast and the performances around V96 revealed new songs, the bass slot being filled by a friend of Donna's, the circus family refugee Sheila Chipperfield. Young, inexperienced and not into drugs, she came in at a bad time. When the band took to the studio in November, progress ground to a halt. "There's whole sessions with Sheila, eight songs that we were working on that never got finished," Justine remembers. Nothing I was writing seemed to work."
The live performances - revealing new songs like 'I Want You', 'Human', 'A Love Like Ours' - whetted appetites for imminent new Elastica material. Members of Menswear could be heard whispering awedly that this stuff was "very good, very dark, very Donna".
By way of compensation, Justine became increasingly obsessed with the minutiae of production, finally "spending a whole day on getting one fucking guitar sound, then changing it the next day". Shacked up with producer Alan Moulder in Fulham's Mayfair Studios, the band slowly started to fall apart. The long anticipated money was eventually simply frittered away on studios and wages.
"We were spending £800 a day for four or five months, getting fuck-all done, arguing, hating each other and sleeping a lot," winces Justine. "Just classically what not to do on your second record. Probably over the five years we got through about £350,000. Quite a lot of money down the drain, really."
Between Justine's perfectionism and Donna's waywardness, the sessions were evidently going nowhere. CDs full of material - practically all deemed unreleasable - were stacking up. Eventually, Donna and Justine took to the studio on alternate days, each avoiding the other.
"You'd go in the studio on your own almost," remembers Justin. "You'd be sat at home, and you knew the studio was booked. You just waited for a call when you needed to come in. And you knew nothing was happening for, like, two weeks. Things that were a bit... daunting. We were all fucked off with wasting all this money."
Apparently not everyone was fucked off... "Donna said at one point that she wanted to spend all Geffen's money then leave the band," says Justine. "I told her I thought that was a bit... cruel. I think a lot of things were said both ways that we regret."
What do you regret?
And eventually those people went in different directions.
1997 was, therefore, a very bad year for Elastica. Although the band's management didn't want to admit it was all over, the only thing that still existed was the public and press's expectation of that new album.
For a period of 18 months Justine turned into a self-confessed hermit. Rumours started circulating that her relationship with Damon was on the rocks. She was linked romantically - links that have always been denied by all parties - to old mates like pre-Damon boyfriend Brett Anderson and Loz, the former singer in Kingmaker, the early '90s indie band effectively crushed by the rise of Britpop.
For Justine, the decadence of people's imaginings in reality amounted to nothing more than hanging out with friends, listening to a lot of Brian Eno, and making music with new lodger Loz trough the night in her basement mini-studio. Of her "hiding from the sun/waiting for the night to come"-style waking hours, she says, "I was seeing more sunrises than sunsets."
When Justine Frischmann asks, "Do you wanna be in my gang?", people find it hard to refuse. With her glowering looks, louche voice and swaggering demeanour, she's a natural leader. She's also, whether she likes it or not, a natural pop star.
But fame-hungry wannabes are classically from the humdrum suburbs rather than from families that are very well-off indeed - think Geri from Watford, or Kate from Croydon. Another source of aggravation for Justine were the claims that her band was nothing but a rich kid's hobby, that she was only playing at being a pop singer on a whim and, as rich kids tend to do, had simply got bored. The truth is rather more complex.
Did you want to be a pop star?
So becoming involved in the fame thing was almost an accident.
Did you feel almost sucked into it?
So you're trying it again properly this time!
So did pop life become boring?
So how important was Loz in keeping you going?
If he's so crucial to Elastica's ressurection, why isn't he in the band?
The band being skint again - how does that feel?
Do you have a work ethic instilled in you?
Did that knock your confidence?
When did you decide you needed to byll out?
So how did you change things?
Did you just come out and say goodbye?
1998 wasn't, then, much fun. But it did pave the way for 1999. Which really was much better.Apart from one dark cloud: Justine was again the subject of public debate thanks to such barely veiled images on Blur's '13', as the "ghost I love the most" who's urged "when you're coming down think of me here". 'Tender' made her cry when she first heard it, but by the time third single 'No Distance Left To Run' was all over the radio, the emotion turned to irritation.
"I do think Damon wrote some really beautiful, sad songs on '13'," she concurs. "On the other hand, I think he could have used our break up as less of a marketing tool. It was a bit ugly."
The silver lining was that Justine finally resolved to finish the second Elastica album. During the previous year, she had begun constructing a group of people she could work with. She'd seen Paul play with Linoleum and thought "I have to get my hands on that guitarist - in a musical sense." She invited him over and they got stoned to her current favourites, Cornelius and 'Faust IV'.
In autumn '98, she phoned and invited him down to the studio. "I just turned up there at the EMI Publishing Studio and it's just me and the engineer," Paul says, incredulously. "I said, 'Do you know what I'm doing?' He said, 'Play anything you want on this track.' It was youst two root notes, the beginning of 'Da Da Da'. So I played over that and Justine turned up at about three saying, 'That's great.' And that was it!"
A month and a half later, Justine phoned again asking if he could come to rehearsals. "To be honest with you," he recalls, "I was apprehensive, I thought everyone would be sprawled everywhere. I thought I'd be in rehab by the end of October [laughs]. But they were just brilliant. Justine said, 'Would you like to come back tomorrow?' And they haven't managed to get rid of me yet."
After the years of large, spacious studioss with tables full of bananas and sandwiches they'd paid for but didn't want, the band took a small, cheap studio in the low-rent make-your-own-tea surrounds of the Fortress complex in Clerkenwell, London, with its pool tables and music from new bands blaring through doorways.
Annie had rejoined at the year's start after being courted by Justine. Her presence, along with Paul, kickstarted the idea that Elastica were a proper living, breathing band again.
Mew eventually joined up in April, after overcoming initial fears and succumbing to Justine's forthright advances. "I thought, I could make such a tit of myself here," she remembers of her first rehearsal session. "The first thing we did was 'Generator'. I think I'd been working that day and I just came in later and they'd all swapped instruments and stuff. They were all pretty pissed and had obviously been having a real laugh down the Fortress. I came in and we just did loads of shouting. By the end of the night we were all, [hoarsely] 'Night then, see you tomorrow.'"
They started working on the tracks which would eventually appear on 'The Menace'. But Justine wasn't happy with the results. "When Justine's got an idea, when she's focused, it can be 20 takes on a minute's worth of music," Paul admits. "It can be quite gruelling."
Countless versions of songs from different periods - including Donna's electro-rock from circa '96 and the vocal-free electronica recorded with Loz circa '98 - had to be sifted trough. "There are loads of tracks that she's like, 'No no no, that gives me bad memories,'" says Paul.
The trouble was they were airless and studio-bound as only a band who hasn't performed live before can be. So, against advice from management, Justine decided to play Reading.
"I just knew that unless we gave ourselves something concrete to get it together for, things would just drag on," she says. "And I think even though the EP was kind of a weird thing, it was important to get something out."
The EP might have been a rather shoddy return, but the Reading Festival gig and its surrounding dates were triumphant, cementing Elastica Mark II as a fitting rival to Mark I, as much in terms of partying as performance. The 13-hour bus journey up to Dingwall in Scotland ["I thought that was a place in Camden," smiles Mew] became an excuse for a piss-up. The next day, Dave and Justin took their scooters out over the nearby lochs. On 23 August, the day the EP was released, they celebrated with an impromptu all-day session in a bowling party. On the way back from a gig in Middlesborough, Dave played techno DJ for a back of bus mini-rave.
The result of all this gigging and gonzoing was that Justine decided that they were going to re-record practically the whole album. Oh yes. And, in a matter of weeks, in sessions lasting from four till four that's exactly what they did.
Thankfully they had the restraining influence of 'Elastica' producer Marc Waterman who is, claims Justine, "a really good antidote to getting anal. If he thinks you're taking a second too long, he'll just tell you to fuck off, basically."
They decided to simply learn a song, play it and then record it in the style of "a real old school punk recording session."
In person, Elastica appear to be what they are: a new band. "It's like starting all over again," Annie confirms.
But there's still room for offbeam pop-art statements. After a traumatic breakup, few have found solace in the song 'Da Da Da' by early '80s German oddities Trio. Even getting dropped by US label Geffen in November on the eve of their first new product looked like a tactic to bolster Elastica's credentials as the indie-punk 'Tap. Happily, the label was willing to waive most of the band's substantial debts to get shot of their troublesome signing.
They're now getting free time in EMI Publishing's West End studio, to follow their new direction - influenced by early '80s New York black female three-piece ESG ["like a cross between The Slits and Grace Jones"]. There's even talk of more material being released by the autumn.
What's more, there's a heart-warming reconciliation afoot. Donna came to their January show at London's Astoria. And one keyboard-playing visitor for the album sessions was Damon Albarn. "Yes, he's on again," confirms Justine. "I've done him as another anagram. You can get an awful lot of words out of his name. 'Bland Aroma' is one - which is bizarre."
The new gang are even going out again. The photo session ends as the weekend arrives and they immediatelly shoot off to Haxton's Bricklayers Arms - the most infamously trendy London boozer since Camden's Good Mixer.
"I feel right about going out again," Justine admits. "Now I'm not with Damon anymore I don't feel so much like... a prat."
They might have no collateral, no US deal, no actual obvious hit singles in the offing, but they certainly seem satisfied that, this time at least, they're finally doing things the right way. "Money is an issue at the moment," Justine admits. "But I'm not really interested. When anyone gets money in their pocket, it just fucks up."